Author Archives: Necropraxis

Theater of Shared Working Memory

Figure from Baars & Franklin (2003): How conscious experience and working memory interact. Trends in Cognitive Science.

Players in a tabletop roleplaying game themselves constitute some of the hardware that makes up the game. This is a substantial part of what distinguishes tabletop roleplaying from other mediums and activities. It seems to me that designers and players too rarely consider directly the constraints or affordances of these human details, despite the centrality of human capabilities to the activity. Consider theater of the mind, where players collectively maintain the details of an immediate fictional situation through conversation. Collectively maintaining a dynamic situation is complex. People have limited thinking powers, so theater of the mind constrains the complexity of potential fictional situations. In terms of benefits, conversationally maintaining a collectively shared fictional reality allows imaginative flexibility, compared to more concrete tactical representations, so theater of the mind affords continuous creative reinterpretation.

The entire theater of the mind needs to fit in the working memories of current players. This is a small workspace. Experimentally, just rehearsing a phone number can effectively induce cognitive load. Even assuming some division of labor between players, such as player one tracking lava locations and player two tracking the anger expressed by goblins, the amount of information available is highly constrained. Further, in practice, such division of labor is mostly impractical, due to the nature of the task, which is to collectively keep as much detail alive continually for as many players as possible. This task is orders of magnitude more complex than, say, watching a Peter Jackson action scene—and there is a lot of chaos in a Peter Jackson action scene.

Unlike competitive games that involve shared imagination, such as chess, the success of the endeavor is collective. One player, or a subset of players, can take on more responsibility for coordinating communication and resolving ambiguity. Traditionally, this will be the referee/dungeon master. However, the activity itself, the actual unfolding of play, lives or dies only as it persists richly in the experience of all participating players. In this respect, roleplaying ability involves facilitating collective shared experience—this goes for players just as much as referees—rather than procedural knowledge extracted from rulebooks. Success remains collective at the level of maintaining shared fictional understanding even if the game has competitive elements, such as constructing the most effective character build or keeping your character alive the longest. Unlike games of physical sport that similarly rely on shared abilities to successfully realize the performed activity, most roleplaying game designers and players seem unaware of how their own abilities and limitations shape and constrain the experienced game.

Due to these constraints and affordances, hybrid practices partway between the extremes of purely conversational theater of the mind and highly structured battle grid seem to offer the greatest potential. Building too much structure out explicitly risks constraining imagination. However, expecting everyone to be able to track everything in their head is unrealistic, and is probably part of the reason why play sometimes devolves into sequences of rule following activity with low player involvement and minimal imaginative texture. Anyone with a modicum of roleplaying experience can probably recall examples of play degrading in this way. Rather than thinking about rules and techniques as methods to attain a desired distribution of outcomes—for example, the dungeon turn in B/X D&D or the 2d6 +stat roll in Apocalypse engine games—or ways to ensure particular kinds of mechanical progressions—such as XP incentive systems in D&D of any edition or baking genre into procedures for narrative games—perhaps it is worth thinking about the purpose of systems or techniques as keeping the game alive in the minds of players, where it actually exists.

This post has been brought to you by pages 10 and 11 of Silent Titans—which has useful thoughts about evoking memorable environments and situations from the perspective of the referee—and Scrap’s post about moving beyond fictional positioning as an abstract ideal.

Buying, Blogging, Creating

(This is part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)

Particular tabletop roleplaying games are, in addition to being bundles of rules and subcultural traditions, commercial products and brands. Considering games as brands bridges the three broad aspects: commerce, rules, and social behavior. In this post, I will examine which group of players, by game, is most likely to have bought an OSR product, most likely to participate in long form discussion online (blogging), and most likely to publish their own game products for sale. The high level takeaways are:

  • Those most likely to buy OSR products, Lamentations of the Flame Princess players, were no more likely to blog or create OSR products themselves.
  • Swords & Wizardry players seem most likely to be both engaged in all three aspects, being the only group of players having positive associations with both buying and blogging. (I think it is reasonable to interpret blogging as both rules and social engagement.)
  • Just based on examination, there seems to be some clustering of B/X D&D, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and B/X Essentials, probably due to the high similarity of these rulesets.

The wordings of the relevant survey questions, along with aggregate descriptive statistics, were:

  • Have you ever bought an OSR product? (Yes/No)
    • Total n = 1825, Yes = 1657 (91%), No = 168 (9%)
  • Do you have a blog where you post about tabletop roleplaying games? (Yes/No)
    • Total n = 1772, Yes = 503 (28%), No = 1269 (72%)
  • Have you created a tabletop roleplaying game product for purchase that you would consider OSR? (Yes/No)
    • Total n = 1793, Yes = 253 (14%), No = 1540 (86%)
Click to expand
Click to expand

These three questions represent, in some ways, a hierarchy of effort, or engagement with, tabletop roleplaying as a hobby. It is easier to buy than to blog and easier to blog than to create more finished products.

To examine the association between playing various games and the three outcome variables, I ran pairwise tetrachoric correlations. The following table shows associations between playing particular games and having bought an OSR product. Read the “rho” column as strength of association, ranging from -1 (for perfect negative correlation) to 1 (for perfect correlation). (Rho is the tetrachoric equivalent to a Pearson product-moment correlation.) You may notice, looking at the two mosaic plots, that substantively the difference seems small. This is likely partly due to artificially constrained variance—recall that 91% of respondents reported having bought an OSR product. The buying measure was yes/no, so was unable to distinguish between people who buy a little and people who buy a lot, so I suggest interpreting the following statistics mostly as directional trends. The same goes for the other two measures, though the pattern is starker for blogging, where the measure was able to capture more variation.

Who is most likely to buy OSR products?
Players of… N rho SE p
Lamentations of the Flame Princess 1825 .44 .08 < 0.001
Swords & Wizardry 1825 .44 .08 < 0.001
Labyrinth Lord 1825 .43 .08 < 0.001
B/X Essentials 1825 .41 .08 < 0.001
Runequest 1825 .32 .09 0.012
Home-brew (OSR) 1825 .31 .05 < 0.001
Dungeon World 1825 .16 .07 0.026
Vampire: The Masquerade 1825 -.16 .07 0.021

Playing Vampire was the only significant negative association. Playing other games had no association with having bought an OSR product. The upshot of all this is that Lamentations of the Flame Princess players were most likely to have bought OSR products. Curiously, Dungeon World surfaces here again, perhaps because OSR products can easily inform Dungeon World games in terms of themes and content even if other aspects of the games differ. The n here is constrained by people that answered the buy question.

Who is most likely to blog?
Players of… N rho SE p
Home-brew (OSR) 1772 .25 .04 < 0.001
Home-brew (other) 1772 .21 .04 < 0.001
Swords & Wizardry 1772 .11 .05 0.027
Dungeon World 1772 -.14 .05 0.005
Shadowrun 1772 -.17 .06 0.008
Who is most likely to create products?
Players of… N rho SE p
Home-brew (OSR) 1793 .34 .04 < 0.001
Home-brew (other) 1793 .29 .05 < 0.001
Swords & Wizardry 1793 .29 .05 < 0.001
Labyrinth Lord 1793 .23 .05 < 0.001
B/X D&D 1793 .23 .05 < 0.001
B/X Essentials 1793 .23 .06 < 0.001
D&D (1E) 1793 .23 .06 < 0.001
Pathfinder 1793 -.14 .06 0.038
Apocalypse World 1793 -.19 .07 0.013
Click to expand

Note that the blogging question was general rather than OSR-specific. You can find the full list of games that I asked about in the OSR Games post, along with the number or respondents that reported playing each game. There was also a free-response other option to capture any games I missed; there were no standouts in that item.

Click to expand

The number of pairwise hypothesis tests I ran for this post may seem high—21 games × 3 outcomes = 63—but the chance that most of these results came from chance alone is vanishingly small. One would expect approximately 3 spurious correlations at the .05 level, assuming no relationships exist in reality (3 ~= 5% of 63). As you can see, there were many more associations than 3 in this data, and with significance values that would be highly unlikely to see from chance alone, despite the relatively insensitive binary measures.

OSR survey report

Table of contents

  1. Purpose & Participation
  2. What About the R?
  3. Meaning Respondents Associate with OSR
  4. OSR games
  5. OSR Attributes
  6. OSR Play Behavior
  7. Buying, Blogging, Creating

Spire of Quetzel

The Spire of Quetzel is a collection of four adventure sites: The Spire of Quetzel (by Patrick Stuart), The Bright Vault (by Chris McDowall), The Hexenwald (by Ben Milton), and Graveyard of Thunder (by Karl Stjernberg) written for the game Forbidden Lands, which bills itself as retro open-world survival fantasy. I take this to mean something similar to the hexcrawl or west marches play styles. In these play styles, stocking the wilderness with sites to explore is a (perhaps the) central responsibility of the referee. This will likely be familiar to DIY/OSR/classic gamers, where dropping modules onto a campaign map is common practice.

Below, I will first discuss the physical book and then consider the adventure sites contained within, both as modules for Forbidden Lands and for potential use with OSR games. (As shorthand, I refer to each entry using the title’s first noun (Spire, Vault, and so forth). In sum, the book as artifact is excellent; I have no complaints. All four entries are distinctive, creative, and clearly created with an eye to actual play at the table, especially compared to other offerings of modular adventure content. Further, the scope of adventure sites as suggested by Forbidden Lands is highly functional for the kind of exploration-focused game I like to run. Despite this, the trend for successful OSR products seems to be moving away from this level of modest complexity, toward the magnum opus.

Book and Layout

Hard to emphasize how nice the book feels in hand

The physical book is gorgeous and feels well-made. The cover material has a texture that reminds me of painter’s canvas, but slightly thinner. The binding is stitched. I find the interior style attractive, all in high-contrast black and white, with a crisp and restrained aesthetic. Fantasy references are vanilla-adjacent, but with a fairy tale sensibility, closer to Warhammer’s Old World—but with less Renaissance—than to mainstream D&D. The layout is superficially pleasing but is weakened by often failing to keep related content on a single spread. One of the major advances in adventure layout I have seen over the past few years is organizing sub maps and map keys all within the same spread—for layout examples in this mode, see the Lamentations products Forgive Us and Cursed Chateau. Using spreads and excerpt-fragments would improve the usability of all the sites included. This is a difference between good and great, however; as is, the information design is okay but nothing special.

The presentation of each site uses what feels like a system-mandated template, which includes, in order: elevator pitch, background, legend, rumors, locations (this is basically the map key), monsters (or NPCs), and events. Using a template in this way involves a tradeoff. On the one hand, it guides referees (or supplement writers) toward table-relevant content (legends, rumors, events, and so forth). According to the Gamemaster’s Guide (p. 6), players are supposed to learn about the setting through play at the table. No homework! Score one point for the template. On the other hand, following the format strictly feels occasionally like a straight-jacket in practice, especially when entities are referenced prior to being introduced or described. The individual entries are short enough—less than 20 pages each—that the necessary page flipping remains manageable, but the process of initially learning about the sites as a referee is more disorienting than it needs to be.

Utility for OSR or Classic Game Referees

Forbidden Lands uses its own system, which is different enough from TSR D&D that converting actual numbers directly on the fly looks to be impractical. OSR/classic game referees will need to either A) be comfortable making up stats based on the descriptions or B) spend preparation time figuring out how to convert numbers more formally. I would personally be fine with A) and avoid B) as a waste of time, but take this into consideration based on your own referee style. The challenges presented are compatible with OSR type games. If you use XP = GP rules, you will probably need to add some value here and there.

Adventure Content

Forbidden Lands organizes adventure site into three categories: castles, dungeons, and villages. The four included here are listed as castle (Spire), dungeon (Vault), village (Hexenwald), and dungeon (Graveyard), but the actual entries correspond only loosely to these types, with Graveyard being most conventional of the four. Spire is more a nightmare romp through a collection of situated vignettes than an architecture that can be explored.

Early on, Spire presents its legend as a Spencerian stanza, which gives some foreshadowing for the style of what is to come. Rather than spatial or geographic maps, the areas are loosely connected spaces of feeling or emotion, which lends a sense of immateriality, at least from the perspective of the referee. The areas are striking and distinct enough that they carry it, but be prepared to improvise the layout of elements such as a maze or a nightmarish “city of black spars” on your own as required. The meat of the site is several set-piece encounters, all of which are compelling. Also, it has a boss fight, so if you want to see what a boss fight by Patrick looks like, this is the adventure for you.

The Bright Vault is a prison for several demons. While it could be run as a simple dungeon heist, there is potential for more by playing the demons and their captor off against each other. This entry could have used some reorganization. Perhaps a solid orienting paragraph would have been enough. As is, using Vault requires a lot of bouncing around to figure out what is going on. For example, one of the major NPCs, regularly referenced throughout, is only described at the very end of the site. Like all the entries, Vault is short—18 pages including the art—so this is only a small inconvenience. The demons themselves, and the resulting situation, involve one of the stronger organizing themes of the four entries, though I think it may also require the strongest referee skills to juggle and roleplay the social interactions of the various entities.

Hexenwald is listed as a village, and could play the role of shelter from the wilderness, but really describes the homes of several related witches. Well developed locations such as this are underrepresented in modules despite having high utility for adding seasoning to a hexcrawl. The particular format of a Forbidden Lands site feels somewhat constraining here. I think it might be better served by some sort of more graphical relationship map layout, or some way to easily review the goals of the various witches without needing to reread the character descriptions again. If I end up using Hexenwald, I will probably add some countdown clocks for several of the listed events to increase the dynamism of the location and how it interfaces with the rest of the setting.

I love details like this—from Graveyard of Thunder

Graveyard of Thunder is a dungeon in the middle of a dinosaur graveyard. In some ways, it is the most traditional adventure site in the book, with a subterranean complex and several factions of humanoid creatures struggling for dominance. It could be played as a simple dungeon delve or involve more complex social posturing and diplomacy. The challenges and hazards are well designed to support creative play. There are also a number of evocative flourishes—I appreciate the wind chimes chamber—that remain grounded rather than dialing everything to eleven. If I had to make one criticism of the site design, apart from the layout and organization issues I already mentioned several times above, it is that the map mostly remains anchored to the horizontal plane, and a dungeon involving dinosaurs and caves might benefit from more verticality.

I wrote most of this post a while back, but just ran The Bright Vault today in person for a pickup game, to kick the tires on Black Hack 2E. Really, in my head I situated all four adventure sites, but the players’ approach took them to Vault, so that is what hit the table. It ran well in practice, though the layout does require substantial page flipping, as I suspected. One of my players correctly guessed the author based only on the play experience and the clue that it was written by an OSR author that he was at least somewhat familiar with.


The scope of these adventure sites—which is also the scope advocated for by Forbidden Lands generally—is perfect for OSR content. This scope demands of a writer more elaboration and detail than something like a one page dungeon while respecting the referee’s time. In contrast, the current mandates of commerce seem to be summoning ever greater, more baroque endeavors. I think it is inescapable that commercial pressure has led to an inflation of ambitiousness and page count over time.

As a bibliophile, I can attest to liking attractive, substantial, hardcover books with solid, stitched bindings. And according to James Raggi, retailers like books with spines. It would be hard to market adventure sites like this individually as physical products, apart from as zines, which seem in practice to have some commercial ceiling. Spire gets away with presenting sites of this scope by being a compilation and also by riding on the coattails of a successful crowd funding venture for a deluxe format core game boxed set.

This recent inflationary trend has a different character than the simple pressures of payment by word, which bloat an essentially simple, boring thing until it reaches some commercially appropriate extent. In contrast to the bloat problems of yesteryear, newer material tends to be higher quality, both in terms of ideas and in terms of production values, due to community advances in techniques and the proliferation of new social media platforms.

Though there are counterexamples, such as Witchburner, the trend seems strongly to be that the market is rewarding more ambitious projects, with larger scope. This might be good for publishers and creators, and perhaps for the cause of game materials as art, but I am unconvinced that a shelf full of monumental works best serves the practical need of referees. This is a long-winded way of restating appreciation for the scope of the entries in Spire. I think the most useful tools for hexcrawls—and maybe megadungeons too, which can be well served by modular presentation—are probably closer in size to Forbidden Lands adventure sites than to the currently proliferating larger works.

In terms of RPG publishing, Spire is also notable for, in Ben’s words, being the first time a non-OSR book has intentionally hired an all-OSR writing team.

Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-01-31
  • Price: part of a pre-order bundle that was, all together, 799 Swedish Krona—approximately $90 USD
  • Details: PledgeManager preorder, includes shipping

The Spire of Quetzel was part of a bundle that also included the main Forbidden Lands Boxed Set, the Raven’s Purge campaign book, dice, cards, and PDFs of everything.

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

You can buy the fancy hardcover version here and the PDF version here. The main product line page is here.

Adventuring by Other Means

James of Mythic Fantasy takes aim at the doctrine of combat as fail state. I agree with the sentiment, especially contra the strong position that getting into combat always indicates poor playing. That said, combat can be tedious and boring, particularly if repetitious or lacking distinct circumstances.

This is engaging combat:

—Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, chapter 1: Warriors in the Mist

The D&D equivalent: showdown against 30-300 bandits with a fog spell and some tactics.

(I imagine someone may object that Ged’s spell is more powerful than fog cloud. Well, of course. Ged is the the future archmage of all Earthsea. You go to war with the army you have.)

Also: remember to use morale rules.

—Fog Cloud, from AD&D (First Edition)
—Fog Cloud, from Fifth Edition D&D

Team Actions

Grenadier Miniatures, kit 2004—Hirelings—working together hopefully?

Some actions are best thought of as occurring at the team level, as if an adventuring party itself is acting. However, in most tabletop roleplaying games the adventuring party lacks a record sheet—for many good reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. Only individual adventurers have record sheets. So how is the team to take an action? A proposal: to resolve the outcome of a team action, have the most effective and least effective team members both make a check. Interpret two hits as success, one hit as partial success, and two misses as failure, lack of progress, or whatever makes sense for the context in question1. Exactly which checks apply depends on the base game chassis. Ability checks are an obvious candidate, but so is something like the OD&D d6 search roll.

This approach has several attractive properties, including advantaging groups made up exclusively of experts, incorporating the influence of weak links while maintaining incentive for risk taking, being simple, and constraining the numerical range of outcome numbers—what the D&D 5E developers called bounded accuracy—which helps prevent numerical inflation.

For comparison, some other approaches include: having everyone role individually—which is sort of obnoxious—and battle stations—which is fun but inflexible. Taking a battle stations approach, different adventurers each perform a role appropriate to the task at hand, making ability or skill checks to determine overall team effectiveness. Battle stations systems are inflexible because they tend to be domain specific. For best results the system should dictate, or the referee should determine beforehand, the various roles, assigning them evocative, thematic names, and establishing the right game systems or checks to use mechanically. Battle stations take a lot of work to implement in a satisfying manner.

A sufficiently strong member can carry an entire team, but over the course of repeated tasks, even a strong character will stumble occasionally. Additionally, using two checks in this way maintains greater tension around a particular uncertain outcome, which seems more desirable to me than the everyone roll approach, which I see somewhat often. For example, everyone make an intelligence check to see if you know whatever. Given a moderately sized party, it is almost guaranteed that someone will make the roll, in which case why bother? The two checks approach I propose here makes individual adventurer skill, ability, or specialization matter but avoids making it matter too much.

1. This takes a 2DTH (or “advantage”) style resolution system and spreads it across two player characters.

Planning Hereafter

The Pluspocalypse draws nigh. What are we to do? Well, for my part at least, this is where the wind has been blowing.

In terms of social media, activity seems to be congealing around three platforms: Twitter, Discord, and Reddit. I occasionally check Mewe, mostly for the vibrant Necrotic Gnome community. I have updated my About page here with links to other online game-relevant presences, guises, and manifestations. I plan to keep this up to date. All have drawbacks, but the value of social platforms comes from critical mass of users and activity rather than features.

In terms of experience, Twitter seems to be closest to Google Plus, based on my experience over the past month or so—despite lacking any features approximating Google Plus collections, which is a substantial shortcoming. Two tricks helped Twitter work better for me: 1) turn off retweets from people that you want to keep following but that have interests aligning only partially with your own and 2) add people to an “inbox” list to use as your primary view. You can keep the membership of lists private to avoid hurting any feelings. I find the default Twitter feed algorithm unpleasant, but there are clients which present chronological feeds. I use Twitterific on iOS which is okay so far. I post pseudo-privately to Twitter, just like I did on Google Plus. Bonus: on Twitter, you get to see my Zelda: Breath of the Wild screen shots.

Discord has been building social momentum, especially following the social reconfigurations of last week. I have been checking in on Chris’s OSR Discord server most regularly. A highly balkanized set of smaller Discord servers also now exist, based around personalities, publishers, and particular games—Melsonia, Swordfish Islands, Hydra Collective, and Mothership, for example. I am unsure if there are direct links to any of those, but if you are interested, join the OSR server and ask around. Luka’s Stratometaship (WTF blog) and Ben’s Questing Beast (Questing Blog) Discords exist for patrons. This collection is far from comprehensive. There is less substantive discussion on Discord compared to Google Plus, but it does provide a way to keep up to date—perhaps too much up to date—with what everyone else is doing. Discord shares with Google Plus proximity to actual gaming, as it has feature supporting voice and video conferencing, and I see many people coordinating active games. Just keep in mind that Discord is the afterparty cocaine of social media. You end up wondering where the evening went with so little to show for it.

Reddit r/osr is okay and has lots of activity, but also—as with all of Reddit—has the downsides of moderated forums. The r/artpunk sub has potential but is small.

I am expanding the scope of this blog, though only ever so slightly. Observant readers may have noticed some recent additions to the list of blog post categories, including Bibliophilia, Moving Pictures, and Words. Bibliophilia and Moving Pictures should be self-explanatory. Words is for discussion of relevant non-game texts, such as novels, histories, and so forth. I have posted this sort of content here before, though unsystematically and infrequently. An example for Bibliophilia is a past review of Inventory v.1 (an illustrated chapbook of often wondrous gear by Sam Bosma). An example for Moving Pictures is a past review of Jupiter Ascending. I will continue to only cover media relevant in some way to tabletop roleplaying games, but there may be slightly more posts in this vein. It seems likely that scene blog content in general will increase. The tools I use in this area, apart from this blog itself, are Feedly for central feed management and Reeder for mobile feed reading (it can use Feedly as feed source). Jacob H. writes good things about Inoreader.

Friendly reminder: you may wish to download your past Google Plus activity using Google Takeout. Though you may never actually do anything with it, a few years down the line you may remember that some conversation you hosted had some useful insights. For me, it makes the most sense to take an archive of only the Plus-related data (which are Google+ +1s on websites, Google+ Circles, Google+ Communities, and Google+ Stream). I think this will only preserve content that you posted or managed, and so your comments on the posts of others will likely be absent.


Philosophia Reformata (source)

To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.

—Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

What follows is a roll all the dice apocalypse generator. I designed it primarily as a tool to help create atmosphere and structure challenges for a new campaign, but it could also be used for entries on an event table, if you like to watch the world burn and were so inclined. Just drop the 1d4 component, or replace it with some other determination, such as the changed color of sunlight in the brave broken world of tomorrow or the pattern of fissures spreading over the moon.

To sketch the outlines of an apocalypse, use the following six determinations. Since indicates for how long the apocalypse has obtained. Cause indicates what precipitated the apocalypse. Obtenebration indicates what conceals the ruined world from the view of mortals. Monsters indicate what still lurks in the wilds. Redoubt indicates where humanity endures. Doom indicates the immediate nature of destruction.

Or? Maybe your players found a portal. This is where it leads.

Click image for new result (opens a Google Sheets spreadsheet)

Since (1d4)

  1. As long as anyone can remember
  2. Terminating the previous cycle of empire
  3. Three generations past
  4. Yesterday and ongoing

Cause (1d6)

  1. Reckless wicked sorcery
  2. Final war
  3. Primordial monsters unchained
  4. Divine judgment of human hubris
  5. Imprudent excavation
  6. Extra-dimensional incursion

Obtenebration (1d8)

  1. Smoke and noxious gasses
  2. Boundless fog
  3. Extinguished sun and endless night
  4. Perpetual eclipse
  5. Storms of blood, slime, or ash
  6. Snow and ice
  7. Submarine: drowned world or under the ocean
  8. Inhospitable void: wilderness is outer space or Ptolemaic firmament

Monsters (1d10)

  1. Embodied divinities
  2. Restless dead
  3. Inscrutable giants
  4. Avenging angels
  5. Possessed animals, people, or objects
  6. Fears and nightmares made flesh
  7. Mass delirium, lunacy, or madness
  8. Gigantic, fecund fauna and flora
  9. Legions of hell
  10. Robots

Redoubt (1d12)

  1. None remain
  2. One final, fortified settlement
  3. Arc designed to preserve humanity
  4. One small village strangely untouched
  5. Isolated walled towns
  6. Underground bunkers
  7. Dungeon level one: waste above and underworld below
  8. Abandoned castle
  9. Wizard’s seclusium
  10. Ship run aground
  11. Small nomadic camps
  12. Huts clustered around a lighthouse, bonfire, or hoard of lanterns

Doom (1d20)

  1. Restless fault lines
  2. Ancient war machines unleashed
  3. Colossal monsters rampage
  4. Pestilence
  5. Plague of locusts
  6. Vanished sun
  7. Falling stars
  8. Land of the dead annexes the realm of mortals
  9. Invasion of extra-dimensional beings
  10. Flood
  11. Sky flooded by the parching rays of nine incessant suns
  12. Armageddon bombs
  13. Volcanic eruptions and rivers of magma
  14. Poisoned, blighted land
  15. Sunlight turns mortals to stone
  16. Reign of Satan
  17. Feral beasts
  18. Season of dragons
  19. Drought, famine, and mass starvation
  20. Playground of gods

I release the contents of this post under the Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC 3.0) license. It is available as a PDF for ease of offline use and printing; see downloads page.


This post is for people that have played or discussed tabletop roleplaying games with Zak. If the context seems unclear, you are probably outside this audience. That stated, this reflection seems to belong here.

I am going to write about online aggression. Offline aggression has more substantial consequences, especially when embedded in professional or romantic relationships. I discuss online aggression because that is what I can speak to honestly, rather than to equate the two forms of aggression. While Zak’s behavior online and in his personal life may share some causes, the second deserves more severe condemnation.

I retained greater distance from Zak than some, but was close enough that I feel warranted and perhaps obligated to discuss my experiences. I have interacted with Zak online since around 2012. We played in a handful of online FLAILSNAILS games together as players. I defended Zak once proactively against charges of homophobia, when he was in the midst of some controversy, and more low key in many other instances. I met Zak and Stokely in person at Gen Con in 2017. I saved seats at the Ennies for him and some of the other Lamentations folks.

Not long ago, Zak preemptively blocked a friend of mine for associating with the wrong people, seemingly out of the blue. This was a person who had gone to bat for Zak against unfounded accusations repeatedly in the past. At the time, I assumed Zak must be lashing out to deal with something else going on in his life. This was the most recent instance of several where I found myself using back channels to warn others about potentially engaging with Zak. For example, in a direct message on January 11th I wrote:

“I know you already do, but probably best to take care around Z; I don’t know what’s up with him.”

There are others. In August 2018, in another direct message I wrote:

“I can’t entirely tell whether Zak just has a blind spot around Apocalypse engine games due to the way he thinks or if he is fighting against the style and framing more instrumentally.”

Other people recount similar experiences. Patrick (of the False Machine blog) wrote a book with him and ended up totally disavowing any relationship. All of which fits into a broader pattern.

My approach to discussion differs from Zak’s, but participating in his discussions to the degree I did was a form of passive assent. I disliked how his approach would spill over into adjacent spaces and how he would involve only tangentially related grudges whenever possible. His scorched earth tactics probably did discourage some trolls and prudes, but they also drove away many other valuable voices. The collateral damage was too high.

People who criticized Zak for whatever form of prejudice were missing the real issue. Zak was, as far as I can tell, an equal opportunity aggressor. I have been in his gaming circles ever since he encouraged people initially to join Google Plus, based on the promise Hangouts technology presented for Constantcon and other online gaming. Accusing him of prejudice, so absurd for anyone who knew him even in the slightest, provided cover for his aggressiveness and lack of compromise, which caused indisputable harm. People stopped engaging online to avoid having to deal with him. I wish I had been there more for friends and acquaintances that Zak assailed directly or for those caught in the splash damage.

People are, in general, uncomfortable with holding inconsistent attitudes toward related objects. Understanding every positive thing Zak did as a form of manipulation is almost certainly a mistake. People are complicated. Assuming people can easily be classed into worthy and worthless was Zak’s consistent conceptual error. I try to avoid this error, but being welcome in social spaces is contingent upon behaving well, on balance, over time.

Zak, if you read this, a few points. First, putting your statement on a separate blog was cowardly. It only makes sense as a search engine optimization technique, to help keep this dirt from sticking to other aspects of your online presence as much as possible. In contrast, Mandy and Vivka posted their statements on their personal social media accounts. Comport yourself by your own rules and do the same, even if you lack the sense to engage in further reevaluation or introspection. You may feel the urge to argue about this or some other tangential detail, but my opinion or belief is irrelevant in this matter. The only thing you can do is demonstrate by your actions a better character. I believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to tell their story. Even people that have done worse things than those alleged. You have that opportunity elsewhere, however, and everybody knows your blog, or can easily locate it using a search engine, so I feel no obligation to host your response here or link to it directly.

Signposts and x-cards

Signpost: “Prepare To Die” (source)

People have developed a lot of systems to manage conflict, such as laws and courts. It is good that people can appeal to courts and other bureaucracies. Society would probably work poorly without that backstop. Explicit conflict management systems have some rather large downsides, however. “I am so happy this is going to court!”—said pretty much nobody ever.

The x-card is like a (mini) bureaucracy, designed to handle conflict that may be invisible initially to some participants. The x-card functions reasonably well as a tool (and works best if everyone is on board), but can suffocate play if allowed to metastasize. It is unsurprising to me that interaction with a club bureaucracy prompted this post by Emmy.

Most interaction between people occurs based on norms, including conflict management. The naive approach to managing conflict using norms in tabletop roleplaying games is the almost content-free “don’t be a dick” (almost content-free because it defers the work of creating shared understanding). For managing conflict between players, my opinion is that techniques such as writing play agendas and setting content expectations have greater promise and fewer of the downsides inherent in less-flexible procedural approaches (such as the x-card).

It might be useful to people that care about such things to come up with a catalog of approaches to managing conflict in games between players using norms. What techniques exist beyond written play agendas and signposting potential content?

(The proximate cause of this post was Scrap’s discussion here, soon to be lost.)

OSR play behavior

(This is part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)

Earlier, I reported the OSR ratings of various games (as in, level of agreement with the statement: I think the game ________ is OSR) and also which games respondents reported playing. As I noted in that post, these variables allowed me to score individual responses on degree of OSR play behavior. Respondents themselves, in aggregate, determined what OSR play behavior entails. In addition to being related to several other variables that you might expect (such as self-declared participation in the OSR, degree of identification with the OSR, and having bought an OSR product), degree of OSR play behavior also positively predicts blogging about tabletop roleplaying games generally and belief that the OSR welcomes diverse voices.

I came up with the idea of scoring respondents on OSR play behavior after designing the survey, so the set of games rated on OSR-ness differs slightly from the set of games respondents could indicate they were currently playing. However, there is a substantial overlap between the two sets. This set of overlapping games contributes to the OSR play behavior score. To create an OSR play score for each respondent, I calculated an average of play scores (playing = 1, not playing = missing value) weighted by game OSR rating, which ranges from 1 to 7. For example, a respondent that indicated playing Vampire: The Masquerade (OSR rating = 1.90) and B/X D&D (OSR rating = 6.14) would have an overall OSR play score of (1.90 + 6.14) / 2 = 4.02. One of the options for currently played games was Home-brew (OSR), which I decided should have an OSR game rating of 7. After all, what game could be more subjectively OSR than one the respondent categorized themselves as Home-brew (OSR)? I determined this scoring scheme prior to looking at any results.

1634 respondents reported currently playing some games for which I had OSR ratings, allowing me to score those responses on OSR play behavior. The mean rating of OSR play among these respondents was 4.41 (SD = 1.44, min = 1.75, max = 7). The distribution of this score was roughly uniform, though there were spikes around 2.87 (n = 198), which corresponds to respondents that reported only currently playing D&D 5E, around 4.93 (n = 64), which corresponds to respondents that reported playing D&D 5E + Home-brew (OSR), and around 7 (n = 96), which corresponds to respondents that reported only currently playing a Home-brew (OSR) game.

Each response gets an “OSR play behavior” score

This composite play score is obviously imperfect, as respondents indicated play dichotomously rather than by degree, the set of games available to select was incomplete, and the measurement of game OSR-ness was itself imprecise (though derived empirically from the beliefs of respondents). However, the relevant question is whether the rating captures some meaningful variation in degree of OSR play behavior rather than whether it perfectly describes each respondent’s play behavior.

Within sample, the OSR play behavior score has some predictive validity. For example, OSR participants have higher OSR play behavior scores (t(1630) = -18.13, p < .001, MOSR = 4.68, Mnon-OSR = 3.26, using a two-sample t test with unequal variances). Looking at the same relationship another way, I regressed the OSR play behavior score on effects-coded self-declared OSR participation (omnibus F(1, 1628) = 283.61, R2 = .15, b = 1.42, SE = .08, t = 16.84, p < .001, 95% CI [1.25, 1.58]). In English, people who said they participate in the OSR (yes/no) do actually report higher OSR play behavior (the R2 = .15 value means that self-declared participation explains about 15% of the variance in OSR play behavior). Additionally, people with higher OSR play scores were more likely to report having bought an OSR product, according to a logistic regression (b = .51, SE = .07, z = 7.21, p < .001, 95% CI [.37, .65]). This is somewhat exploratory, but strongly suggests the score is capturing some meaningful variation in reported behavior.

Now for some of the more intriguing relationships, such as with blogging (Do you have a blog where you post about tabletop roleplaying games? Yes/No). OSR play behavior positively predicts blogging about any tabletop roleplaying games (b = .32, SE = .06, z = 5.55, p < .001, 95% CI [.21, .43], using a logistic regression). General play behavior, however, measured as the number of different games played, has no relationship to blogging (b = .09, SE = .06, z = 1.55, p = .121). The logistic regression equivalent of R2 is pretty low for this relationship, around 2%, so the importance of the relationship may be small, but the point is comparative: something about OSR play inclines people toward sharing long-form thoughts about tabletop roleplaying compared to just playing a wide variety of games.

Finally, respondents with higher OSR play behavior scores reported the OSR to be more welcoming of diverse voices (omnibus F(1, 1628) = 129.69, R2 = .07, b = .46, SE = .04, t = 11.39, p < .001, 95% CI [.38, .54]). The text of this particular item was: The OSR welcomes diverse voices (1 = Strongly disagree, 7 = Strongly agree; M = 4.79, SD = 1.70, n = 1823). There are a few potential interpretations of this result. Optimistically, people walking the talk (that is, respondents that actually play consensually-defined OSR games) have a more positive view of the degree to which the OSR is welcoming. Pessimistically, there may be some selection bias, as people who feel the OSR is unwelcoming may have been less likely to participate in the survey at all. Anecdotally, I did observe this reaction from a handful of individuals. As a crude robustness check, I arbitrarily changed 50 of the “welcoming” responses (around 2% of the sample) to be 1 (Strongly disagree), simulating absent negative responses, and ran the same analysis again. The result held, suggesting that this sort of selection bias would have minimal effect on aggregate beliefs.

OSR survey report

Table of contents

  1. Purpose & Participation
  2. What About the R?
  3. Meaning Respondents Associate with OSR
  4. OSR games
  5. OSR Attributes
  6. OSR Play Behavior
  7. Buying, Blogging, Creating